Thursday, April 12, 2007

All charges against three former Duke University lacrosse players were dropped yesterday by the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, which took over the investigation into rape accusations against the men after the local district attorney was accused of ethics violations.

In an unusually terse announcement, State Attorney General Roy Cooper referred to Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong as a “rogue prosecutor” who pushed his case forward “unchecked” and said special prosecutors had determined after a three-month investigation that the athletes were the victims of a “tragic rush to accuse” by an overreaching district attorney.

Mr. Cooper said special prosecutors James Coman and Mary D. Winstead concluded that no attack had occurred after reviewing the evidence, interviewing witnesses and talking several times with the accuser, Crystal Gail Mangum, who told Durham police that she was raped in the bathroom of an off-campus house during a team party for which she had been hired to perform as a stripper.

David F. Evans, 24, of Bethesda; Collin Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y.; and Reade W. Seligmann, 20, of Essex Falls, N.J., originally had been charged by Mr. Nifong’s office with first-degree forcible rape, first-degree sexual offense and kidnapping.

“There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado,” Mr. Cooper said at a press conference. “In the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly. Regardless of the reasons this case was pushed forward, the result was wrong.

“We need to learn from this and keep it from happening again to anybody,” he said. “The result is that these cases are over and no more criminal proceedings will occur.”

Charges against the three men were reduced in December to kidnapping and sexual assault after a Dec. 21 interview with Miss Mangum during which she said she was not certain that Mr. Seligmann had taken part in the assault and was not sure she had been penetrated, a necessary element of rape under North Carolina law.

Mr. Cooper said the investigation “shows clearly” that there was insufficient evidence to proceed on any charges, noting that Mr. Nifong’s office failed to verify the facts, eyewitness identification procedures were unreliable, there was no DNA evidence to support the woman’s story, there were no witnesses to corroborate the accusations, and Miss Mangum contradicted herself and changed her story several times.

“We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations,” he said. “Based on the significant inconsistencies between the evidence and the various accounts given by the accusing witness, we believe these three individuals are innocent of these charges.”

Mr. Cooper said he told the three former players that his office had “looked at the charges, looked at the law and they had been cleared of all charges.” He also said no charges will be brought against Miss Mangum, saying she “may actually believe” the many different stories she has told.

He also said he will push for the passage of legislation that would allow the state Supreme Court to remove a prosecutor “who needs to step away from a case where justice demands.” He said it would keep “this from happening to anybody else.”

Miss Mangum, who is black, was hired to dance for 40 Duke lacrosse players at the house where some of them lived. She originally said the three white Duke players beat, strangled, sodomized and sexually assaulted her anally, vaginally and orally. Her father told authorities several weeks later she was also penetrated with a broom.

A divorced mother of two children, she was a student at North Carolina Central University at the time of her accusations.

During a bitter press conference after Mr. Cooper’s announcement, defense attorney Joseph Cheshire accused the press of portraying his clients as criminals.

“We’re angry, very angry. But we’re very relieved,” he said.

Mr. Cheshire later told reporters that the legal teams would soon work to have their clients’ arrest records expunged in the case.

Mr. Evans said it had been 395 days “since this nightmare began and finally today it’s coming to a closure.”

“We’re just as innocent today as we were back then. Nothing has changed, the facts don’t change. I’m excited to get on with my life,” the former Duke student said.

Mr. Finnerty said having the “truth on my side was really the most comforting thing of all throughout this last year,” and Mr. Seligmann thanked his lawyers for sparing him from 30 years in prison for what he described as a “hoax.”

Duke suspended Mr. Seligmann and Mr. Finnerty in the weeks after their arrest. The two were invited to return to campus this year, but neither accepted. Mr. Evans graduated the day before he was indicted.

Mr. Nifong was not available for comment yesterday, but his attorney David Freedman told reporters, “If further investigation showed the boys were innocent, he would be in agreement with what the attorney general’s office decided to do.”

The North Carolina State Bar has accused Mr. Nifong of ethics violations, including accusations that he withheld DNA evidence from defense attorneys and misled the court. The state bar accused him of “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” in public comments about the case, which he “knew or reasonably should have known would have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing” the investigation.

It said he made “false statements of material fact or law” to the court regarding the players and failed to make a “timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to him that tends to negate the guilt of the accused.”

The state bar — whose disciplinary commission can dismiss a complaint, issue a letter of warning, impose an admonition or reprimand, censure, suspend or disbar a lawyer — has set June 12 trial date for Mr. Nifong.

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